Fantastic Volcanoes and Where to Find Them, Part 1

I feel like I’ve been teasing many of you with promises of more cool volcano photos for a while now, but I have yet to follow through. I hate to make excuses, but HE DID IT!!! *quick cut to the weatherman* Unfortunately, I arrived in NZ right at the start of winter (remember, reverse seasons in the Southern Hemisphere), and it’s not really the nicest time for fieldwork. While it doesn’t snow too much on the North Island other than at high elevations, winter weather is super variable, with frequent rain and high winds near the volcanoes and the ability to go from fair to dangerous weather pretty quickly. As a result, we tend to err on the side of caution and cancelled a few field trips to both Taranaki and Ruapehu in the past month.

But all that all-talk-and-no-action ends now, with a blockbuster two-part series! Awesome volcanoes of New Zealand ahoy!

In our first installment, our hero returns to the scene of his first NZ fieldwork to carry lunch and crack jokes for his fellow researcher! But seriously, one cool thing about doing geologic fieldwork is that people are usually pretty open to bringing you along for the ride as long as you provide some good company and help carry stuff. My friend Manu had more research to do on her main field site, Ruapehu, so I tagged along to help out.

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Since the days are short in winter, it’s hard to get any real work done if you don’t leave ridiculously early (as you will see in Part 2), so we decided the better option was to drive down in the afternoon and hike into Tongariro National Park to the spot where we’d be spending the night so we could get an early start the next morning.

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After an hour or so of hiking, we got to Waiohohonu Hut. My expectations weren’t super high–I would’ve been satisfied with a little shelter with some bunks–but they were far surpassed by the fanciness of the hut. It was really new and modern, with solar powered lighting, a nice wood stove heating the central room, stations for cooking and washing, and mattress pads for sleeping on. We certainly weren’t complaining!

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We met some pretty cool people in the hut, too! Some fellow Aucklanders with serious climbing experience and a park ranger with a past career of writing about hot springs in the US and NZ who was really interested in talking to us about our research and sharing stores about NZ volcanoes.

Did I say it doesn’t really snow on the North Island? Well this place is the exception! It was quite cold when I woke up the next morning, and I was actually worried I’d underpacked (luckily things warmed up fine once we got moving). The plants were covered in a sparkly layer of frost, and there were these really weird cool stringy bladey ice structures that I’d really like to know the scientific explanation for.

We were back around Ruapehu to continue the same work Manu was doing on our last trip there. We were looking for a particular unit of tephra (a layer of deposited volcanic ash) in order to find out where it was erupted from. Based on where we find it (or don’t find it), we can rule out or in different locations as possibilities of being the source.

As I mentioned in a previous post, fieldwork for volcanic mapping isn’t particularly high tech stuff. You carry around a spade, a hammer, some plastic baggies, and when you find something interesting you dig a hole or scrape the surface clean and have a look. If there’s something interesting, you take some notes about what you’re seeing, maybe collect a small sample, and move on. I’m still learning what characteristics are important to note, where to look, how to distinguish between different units, etc., so hopefully it will get easier as I gain experience.

After quite a bit of climbing and scrambling over boulders and through snow, we reached a bit of a dead end. There were a couple possible routes to get from where we were to where we were going, but they didn’t seem safely passable given the conditions, so we decided we had to lose some time taking a much more roundabout route. It was a little disappointing, as it prevented us from reaching either of the Tama Lakes that we were hoping to examine.

Luckily, we were cheered in the late moments of the day by a couple of good outcrop sightings where we could look for our elusive tephra. In this case, we were looking for a what is called banded pumice, a particular volcanic rock (you learned about it in middle school, it’s the really light one that can float on water!) with a two-colored layering pattern. Even though we didn’t get quite as much done as we had hoped, the fact that we did and didn’t find it in certain places meant our efforts were not in vain.

After finishing up, we returned to the hut for some hot chocolate and tea and a tasty meal of hot canned soup, chocolate, and a little wine (don’t tell me volcanologists don’t know how to be classy while doing fieldwork!).

The next morning, we said goodbye to our ranger friend (and our volcano friends) and hiked back out to our van to head home.

Join us again in Part 2, where I’ll introduce you to my volcano, Doctor Señor Taranaki, Esq. (What, don’t you think in 130,000 years that he’d have had time to earn a few degrees?)

2 thoughts on “Fantastic Volcanoes and Where to Find Them, Part 1

  1. I’m speechless. Great trip. Can’t wait for Part II!


  2. Awesomely awesome! Why were there no hobbits in the hut!


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